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Human dignity is our Birth Right

Posted on: 1 Dec, 2014

Modified on: 1 Dec, 2014

By Ravi Bhushan Xess, SJ

Sometimes ago I stumbled across a Judgment Report issued by the Supreme Court of India. This appeal has been filed against the final judgment and order dated 10.03.2010 in Criminal Appeal NO. 62 of 1998, passed by the Aurangabad Bench of Bombay High Court. This appeal furnishes a typical instance of how many of our people in India have been treating the tribal people (Schedule Tribe or Adivasis), “who are the descendants of the original inhabitants of India, but now constitute only 8% of our total population, and as a group are one of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities in India characterized by high level of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, disease and landlessness.” (Gyan Sudha Mishra, In the Supreme Court of India Criminal Appellate Juridiction. New Delhi: 5 Jan. 2011. P.1)

The victim in the aforementioned case is Nandabai, who is a young woman of 25 years of age belonging to the Bhil community. This community is a Schedule Tribe in Maharashtra. On 13.05.1994 at 5pm. Nandabai was mercilessly beaten up, stripped naked and forcibly got paraded in her village by four notorious men belonging to the upper caste. Finally, the prolonged decision of seventeen years came to an end and the judgment was announced in favour of Nandabai on 05.01.2011.

This case clearly evinces a draconian treatment of the upper caste oppressors and their sick mentality who regard tribal people as inferior or sub-humans. This particular episode took me a decade back when ‘Domicile’ was the burning issue and was rampantly catching fire in every nook and cranny of our newly established state Jharkhand. I can never forget the lachrymose experiences which I have had eye witnessed in the struggle of my people at that time. In fact it was the first time I found myself emphatically united in the assertion of our Tribal rights and human dignity.
“Etymologically the word ‘dignity’ comes from Latin dignites by way of French dignite” (Wikipedia/Org. Internet: 6 Sep. 2011). In ordinary sense it denotes respect and status. Dignity is a term used also in moral, ethical and political discussions to signify that a person has an innate right to respect and ethical treatment. It is generally proscriptive and cautionary. Dignitas is an ancient Roman political idea to do with the influence of a citizen.

I define human dignity as love and respect owed to a human person by virtue of being human. “You shall love your neighbors as yourself” (Mt22:39, Lev19:18). However, it raises various difficulties in its interpretations – Who is my neighbour? Should I love both good and bad alike? Annals of history are replete with diverse instances where human dignity has been cruelly trampled upon. We still recall Apartheid in South Africa, the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, massive genocides in African countries, caste savagery in India, etc. The quotient of dignity for an ordinary person is meagre today. Just a cursory glance into the lives of millions reveals unparallel human rights violations.

In our context we have a heap of cases on homicides, religious atrocities, police brutality, custodian torture, fake encounters, unnecessary delays in judicial procedures, human trafficking, child abuse, etc. Today the low morale has become the stark realities of the justice system. Moreover the complete absence of basic functioning infrastructure has exacerbated troubles and contributed to an increasing lack of confidence in law and order. A number of controversial matters are considered by many corrupt authorities and officials to be buried under a refusal to discuss or not treated with appropriate seriousness. As a result conspiracy of silence has been promoted among the ordinary people. A majority of them are so deeply entrenched that they refuse to open their mouths when reasons are asked. An absolute reticence prevails. Behooved in an unreliable condition like this, naturally one is prone to become lukewarm who finds oneself extremely susceptible to raise voice against anti-elements that are vandalizing human dignity. Nevertheless there is an inner voice deep within us that provokes our identity as human who is precious in the sight of God because “without a sense of identity there can be no real struggle” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed). If anyone fails to respond one’s inner voice then he/she is dead in the water.

What is our identity then? From a theistic point of view God is the creator and author of human life. In our greetings like Johar, Namaste, Pranaam, Salaam, etc. we show respect to the other and claim that God’s image is present in that person. The understanding of God’s presence in human person is basically the reason of human dignity and respect in general. In and through ‘Imago Dei’ theology in Christianity, human dignity becomes explicitly clear. According to Biblical creation story (Gen1:1-2:4 & 2:4-24), human persons have got a special place in the whole of creation. God has “created humankind in His image” (Gen 1:27) and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). He has endowed them with a special responsibility to share in his creative works i.e. “to till and keep the earth” (Gen 2:15). Human dignity is therefore the result of being created in the image and likeness of God as interpreted by most of the theologians, which I too agree with. Human persons have been given the gift of freedom, intellect and will, which enables them to be conscious beings. God has gifted them with the power to love and to be loved, which brings them into relationship with one another (Homos), God (Theo) and nature (Cosmos). Thereby they love and consciously become responsible for creating, preserving and promoting life. The Catholic Church strongly believes that the vocation and mission of each human person is oriented towards preservation and promotion of life particularly human dignity. The Church believes that all human persons are created equal fundamentally because each one is endowed with human dignity by God who is the Creator of life “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).” Apart from the religious teachings the Church today is open with its social teachings on equality, justice and fraternity of each individual. The Church Magisterium IInd Vatican Council, specifically ‘Gaudium et Spes’ talks of peace and social justice in terms of ‘the Common good’ which essentially means ‘for the good of everybody.’ Medellin documents and Puebla documents talk of ‘option for the poor’ i.e. giving respect and dignity to the poor and the marginalized by being in solidarity with them simply because they are human persons. The term ‘Social Justice’ with its modern concept was coined by a Jesuit named Luigi Taparelli in 1840. It is based on the seminal idea of Thomas Aquinas. Since then the Society of Jesus have been the frontiers in this regard. Jesus himself, through Incarnation opted to be with and for the poor and taught us that human dignity has priority over everything else. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for Sabbath (Mk 2:27). He consciously and regularly ate and drank with the outcastes, sinners and poor thus confirming that everyone has their equal right to celebrate life in its fullest measure. In other words, I would say that the purpose of God-becoming-human was to re-establish human dignity which human persons had lost because of disobedience of our First Parents i.e. Adam and Eve. It was to teach human persons as to how one is responsible to keep up human dignity by preserving and promoting life, even unto death as Jesus did.

It is my personal conviction that to be human is to be conscious of human dignity. This is our birth right. A person who is truly human cannot but preserve and promote human dignity. It is not just the fulfillment of bare minimum of a person with roti, kapda aur makan. Today’s life negating realities apparently demands from a genuinely human person to struggle and fight to promote human dignity. As a result we encounter various opposing forces in our endeavours. Finally, there is a need to emphasize to become more rather than to have more. We need to practice a Spirituality of love, service and justice which is primarily the other-centredness demonstrated by Jesus our Friend and Master.

“Dignity does not consist in possessing honours, but in deserving them.”(Aristotle)